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Choosing a Jazz Band

26-Jun-2012 | By Jeff Williams

Choosing a Jazz Band

In years of arranging many a jazz band for all sorts of events I am struck by the similarity of how the request is made by most of our clients.

It goes something like this:

  • "We are looking for a jazz band to play at our wedding / book launch / family fun day / sixtieth birthday/ store opening, etc."
  • "oh yes", we say, "what style of jazz band ?"
  • "Er, not quite sure. What styles have you got?"

It was because of this exchange I felt this article would be helpful in choosing the right kind of jazz band for your party, celebration or event.

Rather than go through a history of the development of jazz from the purists angle it would be easier to list a number of types of event and match them up to styles of jazz band with a short description of the jazz band most likely to suit the occasion. Lets start with the wedding.

Wedding Receptions

You are most likely to want a Jazz band at your wedding at two points in the days proceedings.

1. Beginning of The Reception

You and your partner have just left the church and your guests are nearly back at the place you have chosen for the celebrations. What better way than to have them met by a jazz band.

As champagne and Pimms is handed out the band just adds a perfect happy backdrop to the moment. There are two main types of jazz band that can suit the moment:

Dixieland Jazz Band

This is jazz from the early twenties. The musicians will happily dress up in stripy blazers or waistcoats and play lovely old jaunty tunes from that era such as 'When the Saints Come Marching In', 'The Charleston', 'Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home', and 'Five Foot Two Eyes Of Blue'. The instrumentation is usually Banjo, Sousaphone (a tuba that you can wear) and a frontline instrument or two such as Trumpet, Sax or Trombone. The band is mobile and acoustic and can move around the site entertaining guests in different locations. Artists associated with the genre include Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Fats Waller.

Swing Jazz Band

Names of musicians associated with this style of jazz band are Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. The music is mainly from the late thirties and early forties and is very melodic. Ella Fitzgerald started her career at this time in Harlem and had great success with the Chick Webb band. The jazz band will probably play lots of tunes from Broadway Shows from the time such as 'Funny Valentine', 'It Had To Be You', 'Making Whoopee', ' It Don`t Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing'. This jazz band can be acoustic but will probably include an electric piano, which the musicians will supply along with a speaker. They will need a power supply and logistics of this must be taken into consideration when choosing the jazz band. Are your guests near a power supply, is the reception indoors or outdoors, how does the weather forecast look? Finally, how big should the jazz band be? For both styles a trio or quartet will be fine.

2. After the Wedding Reception Meal

Your guests have sat through a gargantuan meal, fine wines and various speeches including a slightly embarrassing one from the best man! They are ready to stretch their legs, use the loos, have a cigarette and carry on chatting to old friends who they may have not seen for some time. They are not yet ready to dance. Your jazz band should know this and should be playing suitable accessible tunes in an unobtrusive way. You don't want a modern jazz band at this point. Known variously as Be-Bop, Modern Jazz, West Coast and played by such artists as John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, this is music for the concert hall or jazz club. You want sophisticated smoky tunes, maybe with some vocals such as 'Let there be love', 'The Girl From Ipanema' and 'My Baby Just Cares For Me'. Artists associated with this kind of jazz include Stan Getz, Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. Maybe also think about some Rat Pack tunes that the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin performed.

Music for dancing

If you are set on having a jazz band for the dancing ask your jazz band how many styles of jazz and swing can they perform. A jazz band that plays swing tune after swing tune all night is going to lose the attention of your guests. Variety is the key. I would suggest a mix of Latin, Jump Jive, swing, old style Rhythm and Blues and even Funky jazz bordering on Soul. Not many jazz bands can handle this variety. Ask at the point of booking what the jazz band proposes to play at this point. Do they have a suitable vocalist/vocalists? Can they play segue (one song after another) to keep guests on the floor.

Corporate Events

This manifests itself in many guises. It could be a jazz band for a book launch, a jazz band for a thank you drinks party, a jazz band for a reception prior to going into dinner. Last year an insurance company asked me for a number of jazz bands that could play for the giving out of its employers bonuses! We had never seen such happy parties and not a drop of alcohol in site!

Think what is being asked of the jazz band in question - The band is being asked to reflect something of the company, a sense of fun or sophistication for the event. Attention needs to be focused on how you want the band to dress. Tuxedos? Lounge Suits? Are your guests networking or being thanked for their year's business? Most bands that get asked to do this type of work need to be impeccably dressed and have a sense of the occasion. They need to appreciate that guests are there not just to listen to them but for all sorts of other reasons. A quiet background Dinner Jazz band lends just the right tone to this type of engagement. Loud enough to create a mood but not to drown out what maybe very important and lucrative conversations! The style of music will be Bossa Nova, light swing and Lounge. In my experience a quartet or quintet is a perfect size band. Vocals are unnecessary and can distract your guests.

Store openings

Every year we open or reopen a number of supermarkets, computer shop outlets, video and dvd stores all over the country. The jazz band has always been a visual and audible part of the promotion. The jazz band in question tends to be a Dixieland trio or quartet. They are perfect being, as we read above, acoustic and mobile. The music is optimistic and uplifting and with a sense of fun. The jazz band dresses in stripy outfits, which help create the right mood for the day.

Corporate Entertainment

This is a large term and covers anything from Henley, Ascot, Car Racing days, as well as themed events in spectacular settings. The Dixieland band is perfect for the almost period feel of Henley and the swing band works just as effectively. Think "Dixieland jazz band" for happy, spirited, fun image. Swing jazz band for a more sophisticated, laid back and chilled vibe. Do you want your guests to dance? This can be quite rare. Decision makers tend not to break into a frenzied bop half way through the afternoon! However if family members have been invited this is quite common. A Latin Jazz band can be very effective in this situation and it is difficult to ignore the infectious beats.

Time for a recap:

  1. Choose the jazz band from the perspective of what is required from them. Do you want background music or do you want to dance?
  2. How many guests do you have? Is the band the right size? Is it dressed correctly?
  3. Is the band outside? Do you have access to power? Can they play acoustically if need be?
  4. What tunes can they play? Ask them for a repertoire list, do you recognize the . titles?
  5. Are they professionals? This may seem obvious but there are many musicians out there who have retired from full time work or are in between jobs and are making their hobby a source of income. How long have they worked as professionals? Who have they played with in the past? What experience do they have in performing for the type of event you are having?
  6. Ask for a sample cd. What is their publicity like? You need to be confident that you are getting a reliable professional outfit that will turn up in plenty of time, look the part, be totally co-operative to your needs and play suitable music. The right jazz band can make your party, the wrong one can spoil it to some lesser or greater degree.
  7. Are they flexible? You do not want to find out half way through a dance that the band you have booked can only play one style of jazz. Ask them when you are considering booking them. Can they play some Classic Soul? Can they do some Latin tunes? Don't be fobbed off with "We do a bit of everything" Ask them for a repertoire list.
  8. Discuss a rider with the band. Are you supplying refreshments for the jazz band? Although not expected refreshments are very much appreciated especially if the band is on site for a while with no access to food and drink. If it is not convenient don't worry. If the jazz band knows in advance they can make their own arrangements.
  9. Have you articulated to the band what type of music you want to hear? Don’t worry if you are not knowledgeable about jazz. Tell the jazz bandleader or agent the tunes you like and the artists you like. This will give the leader/agent an excellent idea of which bands to recommend. Look through your cd collection for ideas; ask friends and family for suggestions. When the jazz band turns up it will be properly briefed and able to give the performance you wanted.

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